The big tent keeps growing

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This is a letter Gaylord Nelson wrote to a Washington Post reporter in 1991 urging him to write a story to mark the 21st anniversary of the first Earth Day.

The 20th anniversary, Earth Day 1990, was marked by widespread international action and considerable media frenzy. The New York Times dubbed it the "Earth Day Sequel." The Washington Post reported on the line of legislators, as well as major figures like Jesse Jackson and Mikhail Gorbachev, clamoring to get involved. USA Today printed its April 22 edition on recycled paper. Indeed, the attention reached such a pitch that the Los Angeles Times asked whether Planet Earth had gotten "too hip for her own good?" [1]

But the following year, Nelson's bristled at the dearth of coverage the environmental movement received, most notably in the lead-up to Earth Day. In this letter he suggests to the Post several leads on underreported environmentalism stories. Nelson's attention - and pride - was in the sustained grassroots nature of the environmental movement.

He draws special attention to the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), which formed in 1988 (not 1989, as Nelson writes) on the campus of the University of North Carolina. It had tremendous success networking with environmental groups at colleges around the country.

In addition, Nelson hoped to highlight environmentalism's incorporation of new constituencies. He saw the church as an especially exciting new ally. While he overlooked the significant involvement of churches and religious groups in the first Earth Day, he was right to point to the appearance in recent years of a number of new organizations looking to meld environmental and ecclesiastical perspectives.

The organization he heralds in this letter - the North American Coalition on Religion and Ecology (NACRE) - was a Catholic consortium of scientists and clergy founded in 1989 in Washington D.C. with an emphasis on addressing the ecological concerns of Appalachia. Its first president, Father Dr. Donald Conroy, had studied sustainable agriculture at the famous Rodale Institute and consulted on environmental matters for the World Bank. Despite Nelson's comments to the contrary, religious environmentalism had received some press. The Los Angeles Times had written a feature story on the topic, interviewing NACRE member and Earth Day 1990 religious liaison Jan Harke. [2]

The other faction new to the environmental movement was business. Corporations were, as Nelson claims, marginal to the first Earth Day. Yet Earth 1990 arrived with mass-produced tee-shirts and green-themed advertising blitzes from the nation's largest companies. And the press had taken notice. In fact, the Post itself had covered the trend. In an article comparing the day's commercialization to the national bicentennial, the Olympics, and the 30th anniversary of Woodstock, the Post noted that business was drawn in by "surveys show concern over pollution and environmental causes tends to grow along with household income."[3] While Nelson here maintains that corporate involvement is "essential" to the success of the movement, many environmentalists remained deeply skeptical of what they viewed as empty gestures, such as when Visa released its Earth Day credit card in 1993.


1 Philip Shabecoff, "Earth Day Sequel Planned for 1990" New York Times, February 8, 1989

2 Connie Koenenn and Bob Sipchen, "Too Hip for Her Own Good?" Los Angeles Times (March 30, 1990), E2

3 Paul Farhi and Martha M. Hamilton, "Companies Climb Aboard Earth Day Bandwagon," Washington Post (April 6, 1990), D3